Is J Street the ‘leading pro-Israel PAC?’


On its first birthday, the Washington Post has an article praising J Street’s accomplishments:

When a group of Jewish liberals formed a lobbying and fundraising group called J Street a year ago, they had modest hopes of raising $50,000 for a handful of congressional candidates.

Instead, the group’s political arm ended up funneling nearly $600,000 to several dozen Democrats and a handful of Republicans in 2008, making it Washington’s leading pro-Israel PAC, according to Federal Election Commission expenditure records. Organizers say 33 of the group’s 41 favored House and Senate candidates won their races.

"It certainly exceeded our expectations," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director. "We didn’t know what level of success we would have. But we think this is a message whose moment has come."

Those figures are undoubtedly impressive for a first-year organization, but the title of "leading pro-Israel PAC" that the Post bestows on J Street is not as clear-cut as the paper makes it sound. While J Street does appear to be the champion on FEC reports, J Street operates differently than many other traditional pro-Israel PACs. Furthermore, the New Jersey-based NORPAC claims it raised at least $1.1 million — although because of its method of fundraising its totals aren’t completely visible on FEC reports. As I reported back in November:

J Street employed a less traditional fund-raising approach in outraising dozens of other pro-Israel PACs that in some cases have been around for decades. At nearly all other pro-Israel PACs, money is donated to the PAC, whose leadership takes that pool and decides which candidates should receive it. There is a limit of $5,000 per candidate per election—the primary and the general election—for a total of $10,000 per cycle.

J Street did raise a small amount using the conventional method, but most of its donations came with the organization acting as a “conduit,” Ben-Ami explained. For example, a donor would pledge to give J Street $1,000 and J Street would “recommend” certain candidates to support. The donor then would decide where to direct his or her dollars and write a check to J Street, which would subsequently cut a check to those candidates accompanied by information outlining specifically who the money came from.

Utilizing this method allowed J Street to raise unlimited amounts for its endorsees because contributions counted against the $4,600 limit on donations that an individual can give to a specific candidate during an election cycle, not the $10,000-per-candidate restriction on political action committees. So, for example, J Street managed to send $91,000 to Democrat Jeff Merkley in his race against incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), while PACs using the more traditional method would only have been able to distribute $10,000 to a candidate in the race.

NORPAC also acted as a conduit using a slightly different method. [NORPAC president Ben] Chouake said his group would sponsor an event for a politician and collect individual checks made out to the candidate, bundling them and giving them to the candidate under the NORPAC umbrella. Like in the case of J Street, the individual is credited with the contribution, but NORPAC receives recognition as well.

While both methods are legal, most PACs choose not to operate this way because the reporting process is much more complicated and time consuming, said experts.

[Washington PAC founder and treasurer Morrie] Amitay said it is was comparing apples and oranges to put his PAC, which contributed more than $170,000 to candidates using the more traditional method, next to J Street’s model. Ben-Ami disagreed and responded with his own fruit metaphor, saying J Street was merely “injecting the apple with growth hormone.”

Furthermore, J Street only raised a fraction of the total amount of money that was raised by all other pro-Israel PACs:

The Open Secrets Web site totaled more than $2.5 million in donations from all single-issue pro-Israel PACs for the 2008 cycle, and that doesn’t include the additional millions of dollars pro-Israel individuals donated and raised for candidates across the country without the backing of an organization, [pro-Israel fundraiser and former AIPAC president Steve] Grossman said.

"I have enormous respect” for what J Street accomplished, he said, but it needs to be put into “context.”

The Post article also notes that the organization is growing rapidly:

Ben-Ami said he has no expectation that J Street will become as large as AIPAC, but he believes it can become influential enough to change the parameters of the U.S. debate over Israel policy. The group’s budget is slated to double to $3 million in its second year, he said, and J Street is preparing to launch an education arm focused on U.S. college campuses. Ben-Ami said the group plans to announce that its new political director will be Dan Kohl, a former Obama fundraiser and nephew of  Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Recommended from JTA